This time last week we were all going back to work here after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Elizabeth II is only the second monarch to make it to a diamond jubilee, which marks 60 years on the throne, and Britons turned out for four days of festivities. I was lucky to get an invitation to a party on Sunday afternoon in a third floor flat (that is, UK third floor/US fourth floor) facing the Thames and, across the river, the Houses of Parliament, so I had a better view of the Jubilee flotilla than I could ever have hoped for. The police estimated that a million people lined the river as over 1000 boats escorted the Queen down the Thames from Chelsea Pier to Tower Bridge.
We arrived early and mingled with the crowd on the Embankment (raised land with riverside walk on the south side of the river). It wasn’t as jam-packed as we’d expected; a police cadet told us they expected twice as many people to come to the next day’s concert of music from the past 60 years, with Paul McCartney and other megastars none of whom are, as far as we know, the queen’s cup of tea; newspapers reported that the only song the Queen is ever known to have requested is Some Enchanted Evening.
Union flags were everywhere. I’ve said before that it’s not a union jack unless its flown from a jack (a short mast) on a ship; I don’t think there’s a term for the union flag when its found sprouting from a young lady’s hair, or printed on her leggings. One girl wore a union flag bowler hat and union flag cape over leggings with heart-shaped union flags, which might have been overdoing it just a tad.
The police were there in amazing numbers. Waiting on a median for a break in the traffic, I realized I was standing with my husband, no other civilians, and seven police constables. I said “Two of us, and seven of you?” and one laughed and said “Do you feel safe?” and told us to have a nice day.
The crowd was too cheerful to be unruly. We saw teenaged girls spray painting their hair in red and blue stripes. Young men wore masks with the faces of the royal family, but on the backs of their heads—go figure. I wish I’d snapped a picture of the lady with the inflatable corgi—corgi-coloured, thank goodness, rather than red, white and blue.
And I spotted the Pearly Queens of Bow and of Tower Hamlets! I’ll do a full post sometime on pearlies; for now, I’ll say they’re traditional London working-class charity fundraisers who wear black clothes covered with hundreds of mother-of-pearl buttons; there’s a Pearly King, Pearly Queen, or both for each London borough. Pearlies are legendary, especially in the East End, but I’d never seen one. These were queueing up to buy cups of tea, and I went over to chat; they were very patient with all the people who wanted to have their pictures taken with unique (and shiny) local celebrities…
…including a couple of drunken Glaswegians. Sorry, Glasgow, I know it’s a stereotype, but in this case it was true, which I know because one of them latched onto us next; he was perfectly polite and courteous, a very happy drunk and clearly a nice guy, but he wouldn’t shut up and wouldn’t leave us alone. The other one started the Cockney song Doing the Lambeth Walk, the pearlies and the crowd joined in, and even people who didn’t know the words could come out with an enthusiastic “Oy!” at the end of each chorus.
Meanwhile upstream, the queen boarded a launch to take her to the Spirit of Chartwell, a luxurious commercial pleasure boat (lunch aboard on a normal day starts at about $180 per person) designated as the Royal Barge for the day. The Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry would spend the afternoon on board.
The same footmen in red coats who normally accompany the Queen when she’s in a horse-drawn carriage (well, officially they’re boxmen, and no, I don’t know the difference) stood on each side of the launch; that’s because they’re not ordinary footmen/boxmen, but are really the Queen’s Watermen. The Watermen’s onshore duties include such things as guarding the crown jewels whenever they’re taken out of the Tower of London, but they originally had routine work to do whenever the monarch was afloat; for centuries, the Thames was not only a working waterway, but a quick way to move around town, and the place for royal pageants. The Queen’s Watermen answer to the Queen’s Bargemaster, a position created in 1215.
In any case, I’m glad I wasn’t in charge of that launch. Whoever was at the wheel had to bring the boat around and tie up beside the Royal Barge without bumping the barge or jarring the passengers, exactly aligning the steps up from the launch’s deck with the steps to the barge. Talk about parallel parking while someone is watching!
So the royals took their positions for an afternoon’s work. Okay, it ain’t digging ditches, but I call having to get dressed up and go stand where you’re told and wave at strangers all day work. They waved at the all the rowed or paddled craft as those went by; then, when the Royal Barge cast off and took up its position leading the rest of the flotilla, they waved at the citizens lining the banks; and finally, once moored at Tower Bridge, they waved at all the motorcraft that had been following them, until the last one went by.
Participating boats were all inspected in the run-up to the event, and just in case a motor were to conk out or a rower were to have a coronary, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) was out in force, its lifeboats patroling the edges of the river, the crews ready to give aid to rowers or to tow a disabled motorboat the rest of the way.
A floating belfry with eight bells came first. Barges of musicians were scattered through the line, with a small orchestra made up of players from the London Philharmonic bringing up the rear. The award for the most multicultural vessel has got to go to the City Alpha, carrying the Shree Muktajeevan Pipe Band & Dhol Ensemble—70 musicians playing bagpipes, western drums, and double-ended Indian barrel drums (dhol). The official listing says they played “Indian and Scottish tunes”, but the one snatch of music I heard from them was Camptown Races (written by Stephen Collins Foster, neither Scottish nor Indian, but the composer of My Old Kentucky Home.)
The bells themselves were newly made in a bell foundry that’s been in operation since 1570. British bells have names; these are named for the eight major members of the royal family. (I mentioned only 7 on the Royal Barge, because Princess Anne, as patron of Trinity House, which maintains UK lighthouses, rode on a Trinity House boat.) The actor John Barrowman (born Scotland, raised Illinois) rode along with the bells to provide commentary for the BBC or, as one television comedian had it, to put the camp in campanology (the science of bells and bell-ringing).
The newly built Gloriana followed the bells, with a crew of British Olympic medalists and disabled veterans. The Gloriana, commissioned by a few people with deep pockets, was given to Her Majesty after the Jubilee.
Then came every kind of human-powered skiff, gig, currach and cutter you can imagine, plus at least one each of Maori canoe, Venetian gondola, Chinese dragonboat, Shetland Yoal, Tanzanian whaler, Viking longboat, and something called a shallop. Crews ranged from breast cancer survivors to Royal Navy ratings to swan uppers. (Pretty much all swans in open water in the UK belong to the queen, and swan upping is the annual ceremony of catching them and putting tags on their legs.) There was even a kayak paddled by two San Francisco doctors, invited because the officials thought it was great that they wanted to come from so far away. (There were four applications for every invitation.)
At last the Royal Barge came into view, and we could finally see— the back of the Queen’s head. When she passed us, she was waving to the MPs and Lords on the riverside terrace of the Houses of Parliament.
If I name the other boats, I’ll never finish. There were historic vessels, including some of the craft always called “little ships” that evacuated British forces from Dunkirk, and working tugs, steamboats, firefighting boats spraying water from their hoses, police boats, lifeboats, hovercraft, you name it. Sea cadets piloted a fleet of boats flying the flags of Commonwealth countries. I particularly liked the narrowboats; up to 70 feet long but only 6′ 9″ wide, they were built to navigate Britain’s system of inland waterways and man-made canals. It took well over an hour for them all to pass by—and that’s without the ships of the Avenue of Sail, a collection of vessels with masts too high to fit under the bridges. They all had to stay together downstream.
Also downstream, protesters staged a small anti-royal demonstration. The Guardian newspaper’s website accommodated such people by offering a button to click, which prevented display of any Jubilee-related stories. I rather enjoyed the festivities, and only quibble at the move afoot in Parliament to rename the Clock Tower as Elizabeth Tower. (That’s the tower housing Big Ben—I said English bells had their own names.) But that’s going too far; the tower stands for Britishness in a way that goes beyond any one person, even a long-reigning, well-respected queen. (As it happens, Starbucks had a little misunderstanding about Britishness in conjunction with the Jubilee, too; the company asked its customers in the Irish Republic to tweet about how proud they are to be British. Oops.)
If the Queen makes it to age 95 years and 292 days, she’ll have a platinum jubilee. It could happen; her own mother lived to almost 102. Plenty of time, then, for me to track down my own inflatable corgi.